Rethinking New-Manager Development: An Operating System to Support Success

Sep 27, 2021

Imagine you are tapped on the shoulder to lead an upcoming training program for a cohort of soon-to-be first-time managers in your organization.

You’re probably flattered, excited and just a bit nervous. While you’ve been successful as a manager, it’s daunting to think about how you will translate your experiences into lessons these new managers can learn from and apply.

You wonder, “What can I possibly teach in a classroom that will help these individuals avoid my mistakes and succeed sooner as managers?” The short answer to that good question is, “Not much.”

It takes “time in the job” to learn to manage

The situation described above highlights the dilemma of new-manager training. Learning to manage is a kinesthetic experience. It takes time in the job and ample experimentation to promote true learning. Classroom time creates exposure to tools and approaches, but for new managers with little context for the role, the benefits of training are muted.

I faced this situation as a senior manager and executive responsible for new-manager development on my teams. Today, I deal with it regularly in front of groups of aspiring new managers. The lesson I’ve learned is to reframe classroom time with new managers as an opportunity to teach them to think, not manage.

Specifically, I challenge new managers to learn a fresh set of operating instructions different from those they employed as contributors, then bring those operating instructions to their new roles, where real learning occurs. I call this the New Manager’s Operating System, and it consists of five instruction sets which I share below.

The 3D realities of learning to manage

The reality is that shifting from contributor to manager is difficult, disorienting and dangerous to the careers of new managers. The work is all new, raising the difficulty and disorientation factors. The potential damages include the morale, engagement and retention of the new manager’s team members, overall group performance and even the reputation of the promoting manager.

In my terms, the new managers lack a set of operating instructions for this complex role. They are adept at managing themselves as contributors, sharing their expertise where and when needed, and succeeding on their terms. Even with a gentle ramp-up approach—which most new managers don’t get—everything is different on Day One in the role.

The reality is that shifting from contributor to manager is difficult.

5 sets of instructions for the New Manager’s Operating System

If you consider the myriad activities that form the role of manager, including the novel and often vexing situations presented by humans in the workplace, it’s easy to see where attempts at classroom training inevitably fall short.

A better approach to traditional skills-based training is to teach them to think differently about their roles and work from the start with these five sets of operating instructions.

Operating Instruction No. 1: Determine what they need from you

Most new managers preoccupy at start-up on inserting themselves into the work of their team members. It’s an awkward, clumsy stage that often crosses the border into everyone’s least favorite place, micromanaging. Instead, new managers need first to identify what the group and individuals need from them in this role. In many instances, the answer is “Nothing,” which is acceptable at start-up.

I encourage new managers to lead with Angela’s Question as a means of tuning in to the needs of team members. It reads: “At the end of our time working together, when we’re, and you’re, successful, what will you say I did?”

This powerful leadership question shows respect for the team members by asking for their input and arms the new manager with critical context on what team members perceive they need from their manager.

I encourage individuals to codify this input in the form of a Manager’s Charter, which starts, “My role as manager is to….” Sharing this charter with team members and encouraging them to hold the manager accountable to the charter displays trust and sows the seeds of a quality working environment.

Operating Instruction No. 2: Accelerate time-to-trust

Trust is the stepping-stone to success for every group and leader, and the relationship between trust between group members and overall performance is well established. Yet, our wiring as humans demands time and experience together before trust emerges.

The new manager faces this trust-building problem on steroids, with individuals naturally concerned over what this person means for them. The situation is often exacerbated by a new manager’s tendency to project a tone of, “You’re broken and I’m here to fix you.” This approach triggers everyone’s defense mechanisms, and early efforts at communicating and collaborating are stifled or derailed.

Alternatively, the new manager who employs Swift Trust by communicating and projecting their belief in the capabilities of the team members bypasses that long, awkward phase of traditional trust-building. It feels risky to the new manager, but it opens the door to transparent communication and strengthened cooperation between all parties. And the natural response of team members to a manager who projects trust is for them to trust the new manager faster. By accelerating time-to-trust, the new manager accelerates time to performance.

Operating Instruction No. 3: Flex your communication approach

Jane Hyun and Audrey Lee, in their excellent book, “Flex: The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences,” encourage us to adapt our communication approaches to the needs of our team members. This approach is vital for new managers, who tend to dictate how they want others to communicate with them or default to a so-called open-door policy that demands individuals seek out the manager.

Instead, the new manager must strive to understand the communication styles and preferences of the team members and go to them on their terms and at times that suit their needs. The new manager’s willingness to invest time learning about their communication preferences and styles and meeting them on their terms is a powerful trust-building approach that opens the doors to quality communication from the start.

A lesson in flexing learned the hard way

After stepping into a new role as manager, I initiated what I believed to be a supportive, friendly morning check-in process by phone with team members. One manager, Chris, appreciated the early calls, and our discussions were high-energy and focused on critical issues for the day and upcoming week.

Another manager, Lou, responded to the morning calls with a tone I interpreted as a blend of annoyance and reluctance.

I asked Lou if something was wrong, and his response was an education in learning to flex: “Art, you’re the last person I want to talk to in the morning unless I need you. I’m set for my day, I’ve got my team ready to run, and I have my priorities. Quit getting in my way,” were his frank comments to me.

Humbled and a bit shocked, I’m thankful Lou threw me a life ring: “I love the idea of catching up with you at the end of the day to let you know what worked, what didn’t and what I’m going to do better tomorrow.” This lesson was priceless for me.

For new managers, focusing on what they can do to support their team members is a core part of the learning curve. Learning to tune in to their communication preferences and meet team members on their terms for routine communications is a great place to start.

Operating Instruction No. 4: Engage the larger organization

New managers tend to develop tunnel vision and focus exclusively on their area of responsibility at the expense of working across the organization. New managers must learn quickly they are part of a larger ecosystem and dependent upon the work, expertise and support of others for personal, group and organizational success.

It’s imperative for the new manager to meet and form working relationships with peers across the organization. They must tune in to the needs of those on the receiving end of their group’s work or processes. And they must become part of the rich horizontal decision-making processes that exist in every larger organization.

I encourage new managers (and all professionals) to establish weekly goals for relationship development in their organizations using a start/renew/repair framework. This simple approach centers the need to reach out and engage with others. For new managers, in particular, it accelerates their learning about how work takes place in the organization.

One related tactic for new managers is regularly inviting individuals from different parts of the organization to group meetings to explain what their teams do and how the groups can work together. This activity accelerates information exchange across the broader group. It helps the new manager’s team members better understand the context for their work and its impact on other parts of the organization.

Operating Instruction No. 5: Create context to promote performance

Too often, new managers focus solely on the team’s daily work and fail to cultivate and communicate context for how the work of the team fits into the bigger picture. It’s this bigger-picture perspective that gives lift and life to the work of team members. We do our best work as humans when we have context for the importance of the work.

The new manager should work unceasingly with their boss to uncover key goals, understand strategies and then translate this into, “Here’s what this means for our team.” This clear context opens the door to improved performance, increased problem-solving and ideas for innovating in support of organizational objectives.  

The bottom line

There are dozens and even hundreds of other skills and approaches new managers must learn to succeed in their roles. The blend of time-in-the-role, manager coaching and skills training is more effective when the new managers are working with the base instructions outlined in the New Manager’s Operating System.

Armed with a fresh way of thinking about their work, new managers can navigate this difficult transition and accelerate learning while helping their team members, boss and organization succeed.

By Art Petty